Crazy Life Changing Experiences Essay

My little brother means everything to me


1st place $50

Jonathan Kuperberg, 15, Agoura HS


Everyone has had an event that has changed his or her life. Mine was the birth of my little brother, Matthew. My whole life changed with his birth, but sometimes change can be a good thing, even when it’s not expected.

When my parents first told me that they were having a baby and I would have another brother, but this time I’d be an older brother, I was full of emotions. I was happy and sad at the same time. My whole life was going to change and I wasn’t sure if I was ready. Back then, I did not know what a positive impact this event would have on my life.

When Matthew was born (I picked out his name, by the way) I could not stop smiling. There, in the bed, was this little “creature” my parents called their son. Not until I picked him up did I feel the weight of his life on my shoulders, and the weight of the effect I would have on him. I immediately felt I had more responsibility, and I was ready to do anything for my little brother.

My whole family took care of him, even the cat, and life was somewhat peaceful during those first few weeks. When my mom went out for the first time in months, I fed him a bottle, and although he spit up most of it and only drank a few drops, it was just as satisfying for me as for Matthew. I was there when he rolled over for the first time, and I was there when he took his first steps. I saw his first tooth come in, and I will soon see his first tooth fall out. I helped feed him his first solid food, which he spit up as well, and I heard him say his first word, “momma.” Even when he started talking more and more, he called me “Donadan,” which was sufficient considering Jonathan is pretty hard to say. At least he was making an effort to talk to me.

That was seven years ago, and Matthew and I are closer than ever. My older brother is a senior in high school and getting ready for college, so he does not get to spend much time with us. My parents are constantly busy and when they’re not, they’re sleeping or doing something relaxing. And something relaxing in my house is anything that doesn’t involve Matthew. So that leaves me to spend time with my brother, which, although it is often difficult and tiring, is quite gratifying. He may cheat in checkers, but he is only doing that to win and get respect from his big brother. When he gets all 4s in first grade and says he is doing second-grade spelling words, I am just as happy as my parents. I baby-sit him constantly and we have fun, even though he is pretty much in charge.

It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that my little brother idolizes me. I don’t know any other 7-year-old today who likes Cat Stevens, Marvin Gaye, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder more than the Wiggles. He knows all the words to dozens of Ray Charles songs, and he even has his own blues-y voice. But more than just my music rubs off on Matthew. When I got an electric piano for Hanukkah, so did he. I haven’t had the time to schedule lessons, but Matthew is learning to play every week. Of course we still play our “Heart and Soul” duet whenever we can. Like me, he would rather watch Scrubs and Seinfeld on TV than SpongeBob, although I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand them at the same level that I do.

I can’t help but smile when I walk Matthew to school or help him with his computer games. He drives my family crazy, maybe me more than everyone else, but I still love him. I teach him things every day and he teaches me things too, most of them about myself. I’ve grown as a person since my brother was born, not just in age, but in responsibility and morality. He comes before everything else in my life and rightly so. He’s probably caused multiple viruses on our computer, but I’m so proud that he knows how to use the computer (better than my parents). Every site I visit on the Internet he bookmarks in his folder.

Although Matthew can still relate to kids his age, he is probably more mature than most of them just for having spent so much time with me. Although I am in intense classes and busy in my sophomore year, I sometimes feel like a little kid again as I unleash my inner child when I’m with Matthew. Everything we do rubs off on each other. I didn’t really want a brother at first, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way.



I will never have a mother


2nd place $30

Natalie Reed
, 13, Wilson MS (Glendale)

A lot of things have changed and affected my life. The most life-changing experience was the death of my mother. 

When I was young, around 5 years old, my sister Alisha died. Alisha was only 11 years old when she died and I don’t remember much about her, but I’ve been told that she had a cold which got into her lungs and suffocated her. Right now, Alisha would probably be starting college. My mom was so depressed about Alisha’s death that she committed suicide. I don’t remember a lot about my mom, just the way she looked, how she stood in front of the mirror putting on makeup, the Rice-A-Roni dinners and the smell of bacon and coffee in the morning. I remember once, while we were in line to get food from El Pollo Loco, she was eating M&M’s and her tooth fell out. She just looked at it for a second and stuck the tooth back in her mouth! I thought she was crazy! It was so funny, but gross at the same time.

Some people tell me that when you commit suicide, you go to hell. I don’t know if I don’t believe it, or just don’t want to believe it. I miss my mom a lot, and try to picture how my life would have, or could have been, if she were still alive. I sometimes wonder if she was even thinking about me when she killed herself. Did she not care? Did she think that it would be best for me? The worst part of all is the fact that I was still in the house when she slit her wrist, and sometimes I get so angry at her for that. I was only 7 years old and clearly she wasn’t thinking about me or my future. When I get married, she won’t be there for my wedding. My kids will never have a grandmother from my side of the family. I will never have a mom to go shopping for bras with, and I will never have a normal life. I will always be haunted by the memory of what she did.

Whenever someone describes slitting their wrist or anything about veins and arteries or anything that has to do with the details of it all, I get squirmy and chills go down my spine, and sometimes there is a tingle in my wrist. It irritates me until I calm down or forget about it, and I fear that the feeling will never go away. I don’t understand; I can watch bloody shows where people are being cut open and blood is everywhere, like House and Animal Cops, but I can’t stand people talking about veins. It gets spooky, and I wish that she would have thought twice before she did anything. My life will never be the same, and I will never have a mother. 



My father’s death still hurts


3rd place $20

Michelle Stevenson, 16, John R. Wooden HS (Reseda)

I know exactly what can change a person’s life in an instant. What, you may ask?

When I was 12 years old, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At this age I wasn’t very aware of what cancer was or what it could do to a person. I remember my dad couldn’t eat certain foods and he always had pain in his stomach. I remember my father would always help me with my schoolwork and was my best friend. He taught me everything, from how to use a computer to how to fish. He was the best blessing God gave me. No one could ask for a better father. He always went out with my sisters and me to go salsa dancing. As a family we would have the best times in the world. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my two sisters and I formed a salsa group called Triple Threat. That year we performed in the fourth annual Salsa Congress. Unfortunately, during the month of April my father failed his chemotherapy and was admitted to the hospital.

I remember going to the hospital every day after school. He was so weak. On May 17, 2003, God decided to take my father to heaven. I was too young to understand what had happened. Of course I was devastated, crying every day. My mother forced me to go to school the next day. She said my father had always wanted me to do well in school.

At that age it didn’t hit me as much as it does today. I miss him so much. I always wonder what it would have been like to have him here with me during my teen years. There’s not one day when I don’t think about him. I still cry at times. It’s so hard to lose a person that close. I was the most tomboyish of my three sisters, so that’s most of the reason I was closest to my father. Nothing can take away that pain.

The other day my mother and I were talking. She, a widow at 42 years old, said she would try hiding her feelings and grieving from me because she didn’t want to show me her pain. She said she would cry every day after dropping me off at school. She would try her hardest not to cry in front of me and it showed me how strong she is. Then when we were talking it hit me … I don’t have a father. After three and a half years, that just hit me. I will never have my dad to walk me down the aisle. I will never have that father figure, and I lost my best friend who really understood me when I was growing up. It hurts me so.

Although I may not have all those things, I try every day to realize how beautiful life is. Ever since his death, my family has gotten closer. We realize that we have each other, and that’s what matters most. We have learned that family comes first before anything. In that way it helped. I have also been really independent. I work, I do well in school, I pay for my own phone bill and soon will be able to afford my own car, and I dance. I also try every day to appreciate that I have a beautiful family and a loving boyfriend. So in my opinion a death, no matter who it is, can change lives. My father was my hero. I thank God every day that he was in my life.



Escaping my father’s abuse


Honorable mention

Cyndhl Imaysay, Paramount HS

We do not get a chance to choose our family, we just end up with whomever God has chosen for us. When I was young, everything seemed to be OK. But as I got older, I began to notice that my father was getting more and more verbally abusive. Not just to my brother and me, but to my mom as well.

When I first noticed the verbal abuse, I thought that maybe someone had done something or said something to make my dad upset. My dad would yell at us and call us names, and then he would calm down and act as if nothing had happened. But as the years went on, he started yelling and screaming obscenities at the drop of a hat.

We were very careful about what we said and did around him, afraid that we might tip him off. I felt as if I was always stepping on eggshells. I eventually got tired of the yelling and name-calling and started to talk back to my dad. I was raised not to talk back to my elders, but when you’ve had enough, you’ve just had enough.

One afternoon I was watching the Oprah Winfrey Show and they were doing an episode on domestic violence. I paid close attention to what they were talking about. Ninety percent of what they said described how my dad was acting. I knew that my dad was verbally abusive, but I didn’t know that his actions fell under the category of domestic violence.

I used to be a very fun-loving child. I had a lot of friends and made new friends quickly. My friends would hang out at my house and I would hang out at their houses. As soon as my dad started to act the way he did, I was embarrassed to invite any of my friends over because I was afraid that he would yell for no reason. I was a normal child, but as the abuse went on I noticed that my attitude started to change and I was always fatigued and hungry. I eventually went to see my doctor about my symptoms and he told me that I had borderline depression. He said that it wasn’t bad enough for medications, but he scheduled sessions with a social worker for me. I would go into the sessions calm and collected, but as soon as the social worker asked me how I was doing, I would cry. I had so much pent-up anger toward my father that I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was cry.

My mom, brother and I left my dad back in June. We are now living with my grandmother and my two older siblings. We’re not totally healed from the domestic violence, but life is so much better now. Everything seems to be getting back to normal. I keep telling myself to live one day at a time and not focus on what has already changed, but for the changes yet to come.



Starving to be perfect


Honorable mention

Yajaira Hernandez, Wilson MS

It wasn’t even worth it, the delicious food I missed out on. Pasta, meat, pizza and even ice cream. All because I wanted to be perfect.

I saw models on TV who had perfect bodies. Some models looked as skinny as a stick and healthy. I wanted to be like them, with the perfect waist and body.

So I started to starve myself. I wasn’t fat, but not perfect. I ate a little at breakfast (sometimes not at all), rarely at lunch and a little at dinner. I drank water and orange juice all the time.

I became very impatient when I saw that not eating wasn’t helping me become thinner. So I went to the bathroom and threw up. I was desperate. Every time I finished eating, my stomach ached. I felt it full so I emptied it in the bathroom.

By sixth grade I weighed 70 pounds. I was pretty skinny, but not satisfied. It came to a point where I was vomiting, not on purpose, and headaches were killing me. My stomach hurt and I could barely move myself around.

My friends were worried about me. They were worried I would end up in a hospital. They forced me to eat many times. I ignored them and told them to leave me alone. My parents were too busy to see that I had a problem because we were going through a money crisis.

But there was one person who noticed my eating disorder. My babysitter took me to the doctor one time. I was there to get shots but she took the time to talk to the doctor. The doctor was concerned about my weight. She showed me pictures of girls who suffered from anorexia and bulimia. It was gross seeing how skinny they looked. She explained that this can cause stomach cancer and even lead to death. Because of throwing up, there’ll come a point when the body will not want any food. The body does not get all the nutrients it needs and slows down; eventually, it stops working. Some of the pictures showed girls in bed with a tube stuck to them. The girls in the photos were so thin; you could see all their rib bones and backbones. She said you soon get thin hair and are always cold.

I started to cry because I didn’t want to end up that way. I wanted to live a long and healthy life. After that day, I changed the way I acted. I was a new girl. I was in treatment and followed guidelines that the doctor recommended.

Today I look like a normal teenager. I’m a happy girl who blends in with the other girls. I’m still not fully recovered but I visit my doctor regularly. I still wish I had that perfect body that a model has. However, I am glad I changed my decision.



Getting a job taught me responsibility


Honorable mention

Linda Perez, Paramount HS

Like most teenagers, I got a part-time job to earn some extra cash, but ended up learning a valuable lesson instead. I started working at a retail department store four months ago. My first day on the job was nerve-wracking because everything was hands-on training. After what felt like an incredibly long day of work, I realized that I had only worked for four hours at $6.75 an hour! I continued going to work feeling cheated for all the back-breaking work I was assigned to complete for minimum wage.

Working in retail has changed my life for the better. It has made me realize that I can’t do that for the rest of my life. I refuse to. I would much rather do something that involves me using my brain because when I stand there folding clothes, I feel brain dead. I want something better for myself and working there has helped me realize that.

Since I’ve started working, my grades have improved dramatically. Last semester, I am proud to say I earned a 4.0 GPA. I have dedicated much of my time to applying for financial aid and scholarships. Knowing that I don’t want to end up folding sweaters has motivated me to focus more on the future. Before, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know if I was even going to college. My horrible job was a real eye-opener for me. I want something better for myself.



A car crash taught to value life

Honorable mention

Author’s name withheld

About a year and a half ago I got into a car crash that was horrible. That moment changed my view about life entirely.

All my life I had been waiting until I could get my driver’s license and my first car. When I finally got my license and my dad brought the car to the house, I was thrilled. From that day on, the most important thing in my life was that car. Every day I would get home and see what else I could do to make it better. My car was my pride and joy and when I had fixed it up into “perfect” condition, I finally began to drive it. Every time I got into my car I felt invincible, as if nothing could stop me. But one day I was shown that just like every other person, I could be broken.

One night after finishing up my errands, I was in the car with my friends. I felt unstoppable while driving. But soon enough I was shown that I wasn’t. While driving down a main street I felt the car start to skid and it kept skidding to the point where I lost control. At this point time wasn’t moving slow enough and when I realized what was happening, the only thing I could do was swerve the car so the impact would be on my side, and so I did.

After the crash I don’t remember much, but I do remember the pain I was in, not only physical but also the thought that the lives of others were in my hands for a few seconds and I may have dropped them. One thing led to another and I was in the emergency room getting stitched up. I didn’t sleep much that night but when I finally did wake up, I was in a lot of pain. But I also began to see things in a different light.

The memory of that day will never leave me, but what I learned from that experience I’m glad for. Not only did I learn that I need to have a lot more appreciation for things, I also learned that material things should never be the most important things in your life. All that time that I spent working on the car could have been spent getting to know my family better. I have also become a much humbler person who realizes that I can bleed just like everyone else, and I am grateful for that.

Sometimes you need to go through rough moments to come out with the best. Having a car was what I waited for all my life, but now just being alive is a blessing for me. Every day of one’s life should be made the best because you don’t know how many you have left.



ESSAY CONTEST


Letter to an inanimate object

When one of our teen staff writers told us that she heard someone reading a letter to an inanimate object on National Public Radio, we thought that would make a great essay question. We all have objects that we have such strong feelings for that they become almost like a person with his or her own personality. Here is your chance to tell them how you feel. Write a letter to an inanimate object to tell it what it means to you. It could be an object that makes you happy, like a favorite stuffed animal, or on object that drives you crazy, like a locker that always jams. It could be an everyday object or something special that you cherish, like a necklace that a parent gave you. Share how it has affected your life in a positive or negative way.

Write an essay to L.A. Youth and tell us about it.

Essays should be a page or more. Include your name, school, age and telephone number with your essay. The staff of L.A. Youth will read the entries and pick three winners. Your name will be withheld if you request it. The first-place winner will receive $50. The second-place winner will get $30 and the third-place winner will receive $20. Winning essays will be printed in our May-June issue and put on our Web site at layouth.com.

MAIL YOUR ESSAYS TO:

L.A. Youth 
5967 W. 3rd St. Ste. 301
Los Angeles CA 90036

DEADLINE IS FRIDAY, April 20, 2007

On this day, three years ago, I sobbed as I boarded a plane to Dubrovnik, a one-way ticket in hand. I was convinced I was making the biggest mistake of my life. I took a taxi to my hostel because I was afraid of public transport, I slept with my backpack on my back because I thought that was what you were supposed to do and it took only 24 hours for me to get severe heatstroke. I thought I’d be home within a week. 

When I left to travel, I was a timid, naive girl with no life experience and zero common sense. I had no sense of self-worth, didn’t have any confidence, had never been independent and didn’t know how to make friends. I suffered from debilitating anxiety and had panic attacks every few hours. I’d never been on a bus before. I didn’t know how to post a letter. I’d never eaten rice, or eggs, or anything with flavour. Everyone thought I was crazy for leaving; nobody expected me to last.

I got on that plane because I wanted to follow my dreams. I’d never travelled alone, or for more than two weeks at a time. I was terrified of everything. Yet, I had somehow managed to cultivate an obsession with travel. I’d spent my whole life desperate to see the world and I was convinced it would change my life. Like so many broken travellers before me, I was convinced that travel would heal me. I was a walking cliche.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that I hated my first month on the road. I had no idea what I was doing and watched in horror as I made mistake after mistake after mistake. But I persevered. I persevered through the mental breakdowns and the panic attacks, through the scary moment when I first came face to face with rice, and through the scams, the robberies and the near-death experiences.

Pre-travel Lauren was unable to eat more than an apple a day and once spent six months unable to step outside her house. She had panic attacks on a daily basis and couldn’t cross the street without almost getting killed.

Now, I’ve visited 50 countries across 5 continents. I haven’t had a panic attack in over a year. I’ve fallen in love with food. I seek out new experiences because I know that stepping out of my comfort zone will help me to be a better person.

Three years ago, I stepped on a plane in the hope that it would change my life.

Here’s how it has.

Pre-travel Lauren wouldn’t have even considered learning to surf

I Conquered My Anxiety 

Before I started travelling, anxiety had control of my life. It sent me spiraling out of control, and left me unable to function. I had multiple panic attacks a day, caused by I don’t even know what, and I didn’t know how to stop them. I developed hypochondria, convinced that my mental breakdown was due to a terminal illness. I gave myself an eating disorder in a desperate attempt to remain in control of a small aspect of my life. For a period of six months I couldn’t step outside my front door because doing so would cause me to break down in fear. I was well and truly broken.

Travel helped me to gain control of my anxiety by giving me control over my life. In the beginning, I was running away from my fears, but later, I began to run towards them.

When travelling, I found myself having to face my fears on a daily basis — after all, I was terrified of everything. While I could have run away from them, it got to the point where I no longer wanted to. So I took a bus instead of spending 10 times as much on a plane ticket, and I survived. I realised that it wasn’t really all that hard. I sat next to a dead woman for six hours on a boat in Laos and, while traumatised, didn’t experience the crippling fear that I’d expected. I ate a cockroach and didn’t get food poisoning and die. My boat started to sink in Thailand and I put on my life jacket and survived. A dentist destroyed four of my teeth and I barely freaked out.

After so many horrible experiences, I realised that my anxiety was nearly always caused by me worrying about the worst case scenario. As I travelled, it became clear that the worst case scenario often did come true for me. Yet, it was never as bad as I thought it would be. I’d take a deep breath, I’d deal with it and I’d move on. After doing that several hundred times I began to stop worrying so much.

I celebrated three years of travel with a big bowl of khao soi. How far I’ve come!

I Stopped Being Frightened of Food

For most people, the best part of travel is getting to sample delicious food along the way. I used to listen to people gush about the joys of travelling for food and wonder what was wrong with me. I hated food. If there had been a way for humans to exist without having to eat, I would have been all for it.

Part of it was due to my eating disorder. When I was at my lowest point, I had existed on a single apple each day. As I’d gradually introduced food back into my diet, I’d avoided anything unfamiliar through fear it would send me back to square one. I had spent my whole life eating bland food and been perfectly happy with it. I didn’t know any different.

When I stepped on that plane, I had never eaten Chinese food, Indian food, Mexican food, Thai food, Vietnamese food, rice, noodles, chili peppers, eggs, coconut, peanut, seafood, cheesecake, coffee, wine, beer… It would be easier to list the things I did eat rather than the things I didn’t.

I did eat cucumbers.

During my first week on the road, I tried calamari for the first time and freaked out because I thought the tentacles might stick to my throat and suffocate me. I also thought I was allergic to seafood despite having never eaten it before.

On my first day in Asia, I went for a meal with a girl from my hostel and had to ask her teach me how to use chopsticks. I attempted to eat my bowl of noodles with a chopstick in each hand.

On my first date with Dave, I aimed to impress him by eating a chili pepper. My throat closed up in shock with the spice and I began to hyperventilate. I rubbed my watering eyes with my chili soaked finger and temporarily blinded myself. Clearly, he knew then that I was The One.

While most people travelled for the food, it was my biggest barrier. I went to McDonald’s all the time. I ate from 7/11 far too frequently. I lived on sandwiches and candy and chocolate bars and french fries. I ate exactly how I would at home and if I couldn’t find something bland to eat, I wouldn’t eat at all.

But then I went to Vietnam.

About to dive into a bowl of pho

Vietnamese food was perfect for me because everything that scared me came on the side. I could order a bowl of pho and know that it would be edible, but accompanied with a plate of chillies and limes and… other, leafy things. I could grow accustomed to the bland version of the food, and then add a single chili. I could then spend weeks burning up from the extreme heat until I was used to it and then add another chili. I was able to increase my spice tolerance while remaining in control. When I realised that this was the case for most Vietnamese dishes — especially soups — I went crazy. I started picking out random items on menus that didn’t have English translations. To my delight, I would adore every dish I ordered. Most of the time, I’d have no idea what it even was!

I finally got it. I finally understood the joy in trying new foods as you travel. And that excitement has stuck with me ever since. I’ve even fallen in love with Khao Soi — a dish that once made my throat feel like it was lined with thorns of sulphuric acid.

Food used to be my greatest barrier, but now it’s the reason why I travel. I base everything around finding good food and rarely eat my Western favourites any more.

I’ve now eaten brain tacos in Mexico, kangaroo in Australia, lizard in Vietnam, crickets in Thailand, cockroaches in Laos. Not bad for the girl who had never eaten rice before.

And as for wishing it was possible to exist without food — I now regularly find myself in the midst of an existential crisis when I realise I only have a limited amount of time to eat ALL THE FOOD.

Rotorua, in New Zealand

I Improved My Confidence

From my description of how I was pre-travel, you can probably guess that I wasn’t the most confident of people. I used to walk with a hunchback and stare at my feet, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. I spoke softly and people were always asking me to repeat myself. I avoided eye contact and mumbled. I stayed away from social situations that made me uncomfortable.

Staying in hostels changed all that. For the first few months of my trip, I didn’t stay in a single private room. Instead, I chose to stay in 6-10 bed dorms. Dorm rooms were incredible for helping me to improve my social skills and gain confidence. Every time I stepped inside, I’d have someone asking me where I was from, where I had been, where I was going. After a while, I became that person who was asking the questions. I used dorms as a way to practice talking to people and build my confidence.

I walk differently now. I hold myself up, and look straight ahead instead of down at my feet. I make eye contact with people. I tell jokes and ridiculous travel stories without fear of being judged. I no longer try and squash my personality down so that nobody really knows who the real me is. Travelling, and meeting dozens of new people every day, has turned me into the confident person I’d always dreamed of being.

Puppy cuddling in Cambodia

I Became More Compassionate, Tolerant, Patient, and Less Judgmental

I realised how little compassion I had when I found out my sister was afraid to tell me her college degree results because she was convinced I’d laugh at her. She was shocked when I told her how proud I was, and how she’d done amazingly well. It showed me (and her) how much I’ve changed.

Pre-travel Lauren was judgmental, selfish, self-absorbed and ignorant. I wasn’t a very nice person. When I look back, I cringe. I can’t stand the person I used to be.

Travel showed me that I was a bitch, and I resolved to do all I could to change it.

The friendliness of strangers taught me to be compassionate. People who had never spoken to me, knew nothing about me and didn’t owe me a thing would repeatedly go out of their way to help me. There was the girl who approached me when I was lost on the streets of Taichung and took me to her apartment to give me a cup of tea and help me figure out where I was going. There was the girl in Taiwan I’d spoken to for five minutes when she offered to take the day off work to show me around her city. There was the man in Thailand who helped me push my luggage to safety while we were being evacuated after the tsunami — not knowing if he was endangering his life in doing so.

There was the woman in Mexico who took an hour out of her day to help Dave and I book bus tickets because we didn’t speak enough Spanish to do so. There was the girl who offered me her couch to sleep on for a week in Hong Kong when I couldn’t find somewhere to stay. There was the man who let me jump on the back of his shuttle car at Beijing’s airport so that he could get me to my gate in time, and didn’t charge me a penny. Time and time again, I’ve been astounded by the friendliness and compassion that has been shown to me by people who had no idea who I was and had no reason to ever help me. It’s changed me. Now, I try not to judge anyone I meet, instead thinking only about ways in which I can help other people, and repay the kindness that has been shown towards me.

In addition, I used to be horribly impatient and hate waiting around for anything. When you travel, this is a terrible quality to have. Buses are late and break down, people forget your orders in restaurants, tour companies forget to show up, locals won’t understand your mangled attempt at their language, emails aren’t replied to for months. Instead of losing my temper and working myself up into a stress, I take a deep breath, I accept my situation and I do what I can to resolve it. I’m much calmer now.

Finally, I developed a love of animals after feeling ambivalent towards them for much of my life. Cats made me sneeze, dogs terrified me. Now I find myself scooping up every animal I pass into my arms and trying to persuade Dave to settle down so that we can have pets.

Not dying while paddleboarding in New Zealand

I Learnt That Getting Out of My Comfort Zone is Important

My comfort zone used to be the size of a pea. It’s still pretty small. The difference is now I recognise the benefits of forcing myself outside of it on a regular basis.

When you’ve never been on a bus before, when you’ve never eaten rice, when you’ve had panic attacks just from stepping outside your door, your comfort zone becomes narrower and narrower and it can be hard to escape it. For a long time I didn’t even try. If I had to give a presentation at school, I’d pretend to be sick. If there was a party I didn’t want to go to, I’d stay at home. If I was too nervous to go into work I’d find an excuse not to go. In short, if something scared me, I’d run away.

I was worried I was doing the same with travel. Wasn’t I just running away? If something frightened me then all I had to do was book a plane ticket to a new city and I’d be able to breathe again.

In fact, I was doing the opposite. I had lived such a sheltered life that it was impossible for me not to be forced out of my comfort zone on a daily basis while travelling. When you have as little life experience as I did, everything was a new experience. Exploring a city on my own, eating a dish that didn’t consist of bread and cheese, using public transport, talking to strangers. While I was terrified of leaving my comfort zone at the time — and for the first few months did my very best to avoid it — the feeling I had whenever I successfully managed to put myself out there and not make a fool of myself became addictive.

Now, I seek out new opportunities and experiences. I want to push myself. I want to experience more. I want to grow as a person. I now know that’s only possible when I’m flailing like a fish out of water.

Views over the jungle at Coba, Mexico

I Don’t Think of Bad Luck as Being Bad Anymore

To most people who have read The Incidents page on my site, I’m the unluckiest traveller around. I’m been scammed, attacked and robbed. I’ve fallen into rice paddies, I’ve sat next to dead people, I’ve eaten cockroaches, I thought a tsunami was going to kill me, my boat started to sink with me on board, brakes failed on my scooter, a dentist destroyed four of my teeth. Compared to most people I know, I’ve had horrible luck. In fact, it was always after one of these incidents that I found myself searching for flights back to the UK.

I would get fed up. I would be frustrated. I didn’t understand why nothing would ever go right for me. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I felt cursed. I felt like a failure.

It wasn’t until I’d been travelling for a couple of years that I began to see my bad luck in a different light. It was then that I realised I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if it wasn’t for the terrible things that have happened to me. It was the struggles that helped shape me into the person I am. Without them, I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as brave or confident.

When something horrific happens to me now, I search for a lesson that I can learn from it. I remind myself that I’ll be a stronger person because of it. And I try to find the humour in the situation. It turns out my bad luck wasn’t so bad after all.

Napping all over the world

I Don’t Know How to be Bored Anymore

Travel has showed me that there’s so much to discover in this world — I can’t even comprehend how anyone could ever be bored. Read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk, talk to someone, learn a language, go for a meal, go to the gym, meditate, practice yoga, listen to music, listen to a podcast, learn a new skill. There’s no end of things to do and see and learn. Find something you’re passionate about.

I hope to never utter the phrase “I’m bored” ever again.

I Care About How I Treat My Body

I used to treat my body like a garbage can. My diet was atrocious and I never exercised. I was skinny so surely I couldn’t be unhealthy? I didn’t need to change a thing! I continued to subsist on a diet of microwave ready meals and chocolate bars.

When I left the UK, not much changed. I was so frightened of food that I continued to exist on my terrible diet. I’d go to a grocery store, pick up five chocolate bars and a bottle of Coke and that would be my dinner. I’d eat fast food all the time. When I did venture out to eat at a restaurant, I’d often order a plate of french fries. I’d leave the vegetables on my plate. I never ate fruit.

My poor body.

I convinced myself that travel makes it tough to be healthy. When you’re constantly moving from city to city, it’s hard to find time to go for a run, and there’s not much point in joining a gym for just two days. Sure, I do walk a lot when I’m out exploring but that’s about all the exercise I ever got. My diet was terrible because I was trying to eat cheaply — but couldn’t work up the courage to eat street food. That left me with crappy fast food. When you’ve got a 12 hour bus journey ahead of you, it’s far easier to pick up a pack of Oreos and a bag of chips than rush around trying to find a salad that won’t give you food poisoning.

I was making excuses. It’s far easier to stay healthy on the road than I imagined. You just have to make an effort. Replace every liquid you drink with water — you’ll save money, stay hydrated and feel fantastic. Stop moving so fast and stay in a place for a month so that you can get a gym membership, or force yourself outside for a morning run before you can come up with a reason not to. Search online for healthy restaurants with great reviews so that you can have an enormous bowl of salad and know you won’t get cholera from it. Cut out the chips and the candy and the chocolate.

Last year, I attempted to cut sugar from my diet to see if it could change the way I felt. It changed my life. When you’ve felt like crap your entire life that’s your baseline. That’s normal to you. Now, I can’t believe how great I feel. I had no idea it was possible to feel this good.

At the southernmost point of Vietnam

I Found Independence

From the age of 16 there hasn’t been a period of more than about two weeks where I haven’t been a relationship. I was a serial relationshipist and I didn’t know how to be on my own. I was dependent on my boyfriends. I relied on them to do things for me that I didn’t want to do, and I defined myself by who I was in a relationship with.

One of things that scared me about travelling alone was the thought of suddenly having to function on my own. I didn’t know how to do it.

But, like most things, I figured it out. It took a few months, but I finally grew to love my newfound independence. I made my own decisions, and I based them solely on what I wanted. I could be selfish. If I wanted to sleep all day I could do so without having to worry about anyone else. If I wanted to spend all day hiking, I could do that too.

I finally began to recognise the benefits of depending on only myself. I gained life experience and stopped living my sheltered life. I figured out how public transport works, I tried new foods, I figured out how to do laundry, I learned how to make friends. I finally felt like I could function in the world — far better than I could have if I’d have stayed at home.

When I met Dave, I was concerned that my independence would fade away but the opposite happened. Unlike my previous boyfriends, Dave encouraged me to remain independent and wouldn’t allow me to take the easy way out. He’d urge me to leave my comfort zone and do something for the first time — and he’d be there to celebrate with me when I proved I could do it. We even aim to spend two months out of every year travelling solo so that we don’t get too wrapped up in our couple bubble.

Working on a beach in Belize

I Realised That Freedom is Most Important to Me

Travel has taught me that travel isn’t the reason I travel. What? I mean, I love travel and you’ll know from all of my planning posts that I’m always trying to visit far more places than I have the energy for. I spend so much time staring at maps and plotting routes that I know travel makes me happy.

But it’s not the thing that’s most important to me. I probably won’t want to travel full-time for the rest of my life. Maybe I will. I’m assuming I won’t, though. In fact, Dave and I are currently discussing moving to New Zealand in 2016 to build a tiny home on wheels. I don’t think we’ll ever stop travelling forever, have kids and hang ourselves from the corporate ladder, but our lifestyle will evolve. It’s having the freedom to pursue what appeals that’s important.

I love being self-employed. I love that if I’m feeling exhausted and drained I can take three months off from work and go skip around Southeast Asia. I love that I can work from anywhere that has an Internet connection. I love that I can open up Skyscanner and book a one-way ticket to pretty much anywhere in the world — and arrive there tomorrow morning. I love that if I decide I suddenly hate travel, I can choose to buy a house and settle down. Freedom is what makes me happy and it’s so precious to me.

I Know Who I am, I Like Myself, I’m Happy

It’s a cliche but when I left to travel, I hoped that it would help me find out who I am. I wanted to heal myself and become the person I knew I could be. I hoped to rid myself of anxiety, overcome my eating issues, find independence and stop being frightened of everything.

I still have lots of work to do but I feel like I’m getting there. I know I’ll never be perfect but I’m determined to be the best possible version of myself. As soon as I conquer one hurdle, I’m setting the next one down.

Against the odds, I did find myself through travel. I have become the person I’ve always wanted to be. I actually like myself now.

Most of all, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

 

Here to the next three years! 

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